The Top 10 Strategic Talent Areas … Where Most Firms Do Nothing

Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 10.49.22 AMThere’s no better way to start out a new year than to take one or more strategic actions. On the surface, selecting a new strategic area may seem to be difficult because at established firms, it would seem as though all of the important talent management areas would have already been addressed (i.e. with a full-time leader, a written plan, a permanent team, a yearly budget, and a set of metrics for assessing its strategic impact).

However, I have still been able to identify 10 potentially high business impact strategic areas in talent management where almost no firm has a permanent company-wide strategy, plan, and team. The fact that almost no firms do these things isn’t because they lack a potential impact (most agree it could be high), so the lack of action must be because either no one has been trained in the area or because the strategic area is highly complex or highly political. Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to take action in any of these areas, review the list to see if you see the potential for a high business impact.

The Top 10 Strategic Talent Management Areas That Firms Ignore

Here is a list of possible high impact areas where no more than a handful of firms have taken comprehensive action. Most are directly borrowed from the business side of the firm. They are presented with the highest impact areas appearing first.

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  1. Measure and reward great people management –– research by both Google and Gallup have shown that, in most cases, an employee’s manager is the single highest-impact factor on the hiring, retention, innovation, productivity and the development of employees. Managers also manage a firm’s most expensive asset (on average 60% of all corporate variable costs are spent on labor). Yet one study showed that optimistically, only 39% of firms reward managers for great people management results. Measures and rewards are important because managers are laser focused on whatever is measured and rewarded. Although some people-management topics may be covered in the performance appraisal or 360° process, they receive no special weight or targeted bonus or reward. A lack of measures and rewards and the fact that senior managers don’t see quarterly reports covering the ranked performance of individual managers directly reduces the amount of time that managers spend on talent management activities. It is ironic that managers are not measured or rewarded on great people management results even though talent management “owns” all of the key components related to measuring and rewarding (performance management, performance appraisal, promotion processes, competencies, and compensation and bonus systems). The key strategic action step is to develop a “people management scorecard” for each individual manager and reward them based on their performance against key people management standards (i.e. team productivity and innovation, developing team members, retaining key employees, increasing internal movement, the quality of new hires, and their employees’ satisfaction with transparency, feedback, and best-practice sharing).
  2. Formalize internal best-practice sharing in talent management — talent management leaders spend a great deal of their time developing new programs in the search for “the next big thing.” While this is important, most talent management leaders fail to realize that they can have a much higher impact (with lower risk and at a reduced cost) if they simply focused on identifying and more widely spreading the best people-management practices that already exist within the firm. Most talent management functions simply have no formalized best-practice-sharing process that actually measures the time it takes for a new best practice to be shared throughout the organization. Rather than assuming that best practice sharing will occur naturally, a superior approach is one that proactively identifies the most effective practices, wherever they might be in the organization. Once identified, they are shared in such a manner that individual managers can easily understand the business impact of the practice, why it works, and who has successfully implemented it within the organization.
  3. Develop a workforce productivity improvement team – there is no single more comprehensive and important measure of talent management success than the yearly rate of improvement in the productivity of your firm’s workforce. Workforce productivity is merely an ROI calculation which compares the value of the output from your workforce (either the total revenue or the total value of the products and services that employees produce) with the cost of your workforce (total labor and talent management costs). Many talent management departments measure engagement (a precursor to productivity) but they don’t measure actual workforce productivity, and even fewer take proactive actions to directly increase it. Increasing productivity requires talent management to identify low and high productivity areas, identify the barriers that restrict productivity, and then to proactively provide the consulting advice, best practices, and tools that have been proven to increase both individual employee and team productivity. In addition to workforce productivity, you should consider other measures of workforce effectiveness including innovation, customer service, and product quality.
  4. Develop a process for identifying and fixing bad managers — in addition to rewarding managers for great people-management results, most organizations need to go an additional step to identify and fix bad managers. This is because there are so many bad managers (one study found that 40% were rated fair to terrible) and in addition, because bad managers can have such a dramatic and negative impact on key employee retention and your employer brand image. Yet only a handful of organizations have a formal program for continually identifying weak managers. Strategic actions would include implementing surveys and metrics to identify your weak managers and to provide your generalists with proven tools and approaches to improve an individual manager’s people-management behaviors and results.
  5. Convert talent management metrics into their dollar impacts — unfortunately, most traditional talent management metrics fail to impress executives because they are not expressed in the language of business: dollars. Saying we have a 12% turnover rate, a 54% engagement rate, or an 87-day time to fill generally won’t impress senior managers because the metrics are not expressed in their dollar impact on corporate revenue. In contrast, stating that every percentage point increase in regrettable employee turnover costs us $7.2 million get an immediate reaction. Work with the CFO’s office to credibly calculate the impacts but realize that other firms have found literally millions of dollars of business impact from: rapidly filling revenue generating positions, retaining top performers, increasing the quality of hire in key positions, increasing talent-management best-practice sharing, and rapidly redeploying talent internally.
  6. Develop a plan for handling a world of permanent VUCA uncertainty most business leaders have already accepted the fact that the business world will remain in turmoil for at least the next decade. This “VUCA” environment will require every business function to be adaptive and nimble. Unfortunately, few in talent management have accepted this reality of permanent uncertainty and volatility. But eventually all will be forced to restructure every talent management program so that each one has the capability of rapidly increasing labor capability in some business areas, while simultaneously cutting labor costs and others. Each talent program will also need to have the capability of rapidly scaling up and down, moving faster and slower and continually redeploying talent resources into higher ROI areas. The incredible speed of change will require every talent management program to continually obsolete itself and to produce superior results to a firm’s talent competitors.
  7. Calculate the unintended consequences of talent-management cost cutting — most business leaders are experts in identifying and calculating the cost of unintended consequences that follow excessive cost-cutting. For example, if you reduce the quality of the materials in the shoes you sell to save costs, you may see those cost savings soon dissipate as a result of higher product returns and lower sales. Unfortunately, talent management is frequently forced to undergo cost-cutting but almost no one in the function seems to understand how to successfully demonstrate to a CFO the real-dollar consequences of reducing funding to training, recruiting, and retention or leadership development. For example, reducing safety training budgets may save money in the short term but the reduced training levels may eventually cost more in increased accidents, higher insurance rates, and higher employee turnover. I sometimes call these “other ledger costs” because the real costs do not appear in the same accounting ledger as the cost-cutting. Talent management leaders must work with finance and cost accounting to develop a process that can predict the dollar costs to the business down the road as a result of cutting resources to high-impact talent management areas. These unintended consequence costs should cover business areas including reduced customer service, higher error rates, reduced innovation, lower sales, slow response time, and brand damage.
  8. Adapt predictive metrics and trash the historical ones — almost everyone agrees that talent management’s efforts in the metrics area have been unsatisfactory. If you take the time to study the best practices in the rest of the business, the most impactful metrics are not historical (what happened last year) but instead predictive (what is likely to happen this upcoming year). Unfortunately, 100% of all corporate talent metrics are historical. Rather than telling you about last year, predictive metrics or analytics give you a “heads up” alert about upcoming talent opportunities and potential problems. Historical metrics have always had inherent weaknesses but in a rapidly changing world, they are now misleading and damaging. The key action step is to work with your corporate statisticians or math whizzes to develop a process for identifying precursors and using probability analysis, so that managers and HR generalists will know well in advance what to prepare for.
  9. Conduct a talent competitive analysis — in areas of the business like product development and marketing, competitors are continually monitored so that “our firm” can counter their actions and everything we develop includes the assumption that our competitors will attempt to rapidly copy it. Unfortunately, although the fight for attracting and retaining key talent is fought between talent competitor firms, most recruiting and retention functions are primarily internally focused. Few in talent management conduct continuous competitive analysis to ensure that each of “our” key talent management processes are superior in features and results to “theirs.” Recruiting seldom maps the talent at competitor firms and the people who work on retention almost never identify who, when, and how competitors will try to poach from us. An effective competitive analysis allows a firm to increase recruiting when competitors are in trouble or have a hiring freeze. It also lets managers know when retention issues may increase because a competitor is ramping up hiring.
  10. Use a CRM model to improve individual employee motivation and management — for decades customer service management professionals have known the importance of fully understanding each customer as an individual. That includes what they like, dislike, and the most successful approach to get them to purchase. Unfortunately, a similar CRM-type file does not exist for individual employees. For example, when a new manager takes over (or when a new hire or a transfer moves into a new job), there should be an accompanying file that outlines for their new manager each employee’s: key motivators, what frustrates them (including why they quit their last jobs) and the most effective ways of managing them. Not only could this information help increase performance and innovation, but it could also lead to reduced turnover. Although some functions do collect engagement and satisfaction data, this information cannot be tied directly to an individual employee. Information on employee motivation and “how to best manage me” can be collected during onboarding, during performance appraisals, or as part of the transfer/promotion process. Talent management could also provide individual managers with a toolkit that covers a variety of ways to motivate and manage, based on the employee’s profile.

Final Thoughts

In my research and writing throughout the years, I have found that the very best talent management and HR practices have been based on already proven business practices. Competitive analysis, predictive analytics, CRM, and the cost of unintended consequences for example have long been common practices throughout most of the business.

My advice to those that want to be truly strategic is to look at the successful practices in other business functions and adapt them to talent management. And don’t steer away from trying a practice simply because most in HR have found a way to avoid it. If you truly want to be strategic, you must learn to do the hard things first!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



10 Comments on “The Top 10 Strategic Talent Areas … Where Most Firms Do Nothing

  1. These are all great points! The key? Don’t attempt to do more than one at a time. My clients find that focusing on “the one” that positively impacts the biggest issue naturally leads to the next one. In many cases, it starts with selecting the right person for the right job.

  2. 40% of managers being rated “fair” to “terrible” is eye-opening. Combine that with the study that showed that 80% of employees leave a job for reasons other than money, and you start to see how important good management is to turnover, cost per hire, and time to hire.

  3. Thanks Dr. Sullivan.

    “There’s no better way to start out a new year than to take one or more strategic actions.” I can think of at least one better way: “Planning what to do before you do it.”

    The Top 10 Strategic Talent Management Areas That Firms Ignore

    “Here is a list of possible high impact areas where no more than a handful of firms have taken comprehensive action.” How do you know this? It may be that no more than a handful of the firms that you know have done this, but how many firms have you surveyed? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? What about firms that take comprehensive strategic actions apart from those below?

    1) Measure and reward great people management:
    Makes sense. However who determines what “great people management” is and how it’s measured? “Great people managers”?

    2) Formalize internal best-practice sharing in talent management:
    Very sensible. Who has the bandwidth to either determine what the best practices are (it’s not as if the managers actually ask the people doing the work what might be best) or to implement them- usually staffing is drinking from a fire-hose or worrying if we’ll be laid off.

    3) Develop a workforce productivity improvement team:
    A good thing to hire a specialized consultant to do.

    4) Develop a process for identifying and fixing bad managers: “Bad” as determined by whom? What if the bad manager is simply another member of a dysfunctional system? If a department meets its objectives but has a high turnover of regular (non-exceptional) people because it’s a political snake-pit, who’s going to deal with that?

    5) Convert talent management metrics into their dollar impacts – unfortunately, most traditional talent management metrics fail to impress executives because they are not expressed in the language of business:.
    Perhaps we should get over trying to impress the big wigs, unless we’re prepared to play a very serious game- “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them…”-Frederick Douglas

    6) Develop a plan for handling a world of permanent VUCA (aka “SNAFU”) uncertainty:
    Very sensible. VUCA is a good state to be in for those comfortable with it- lots of money to be made, power to be gained. As our friends at say: “Consulting: If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”

    7) Calculate the unintended consequences of talent-management cost cutting:
    Very sensible, too. However if a high-level person comes up with a plan, there are no “unanticipated consequences’, only”failure to properly implement it”. Unanticipated consequences exist only at the low-middle levels…

    8) Adapt predictive metrics and trash the historical ones:
    Lots of VUCA here. Make sure the metrics show whatever the people who want them to show, whether those metrics are significant, relevant, or oven accurate. Also, make sure that the recruiting staff spends at least 20% of our time gathering, entering, and analyzing these metrics, because this is much more important than actually hiring quality people in a timely and cost-effective way.

    9) Conduct a talent competitive analysis:
    Again very sensible. Who will do it? Who will get and use the information?

    10) Use a CRM model to improve individual employee motivation and management: IMHO, if you have an attitude of genuine trust and communication, you don’t need to have this approach, and if you DON’T have it, this formal approach will be quite limited, because it won’t produce very timely or accurate information. Also, it’s not recruiting’s concern, except that (as long as there’s plenty of corporate money) the more people leave, the more job security there is for recruiters….



  4. Excellent and informative article! Stagger statistics as well. As mentioned above, it is important for companies to work on one at at time if they are starting from scratch. Strategic planning can be extremely overwhelming when the bite we take is too big. I’ve seen it happen many times and all the work and enthusiasm that went into planning is quickly lost when there is little to no action, or disorganized action.

    I think #1 is extremely important. Clearly managers have a huge influence on the productivity, success and satisfaction of employees. The trick down effect of acknowledging and rewarding them will be extremely positive and beneficial company-wide.
    Ken Schmitt


    Well Dr. Sullivan,

    Keith Halperin has some really good points.

    1) Measure and reward great people management:
    (My Response) I have my own views on what “great people management” is but the truth is before I can work with a company, I would have to learn what their talent management strategy is. In the sales world, my most pressing question being is healthy attrition a viable option? If you have the wrong person in the wrong seat, is the company willing and able to open doors for that person to move around in the organization? If no other jobs are open, is the sales operations department equipped to benefit from a reps motivated interest while they are transitioning that rep out of a customer facing role? This is not my area of expertise and I would love to learn from someone who is a specialist in this area.

    2) Formalize internal best-practice sharing in talent management:
    (My Response) This is an interesting concept that I feel can make one overwhelmed with details that don’t add much value. In theory it sounds good if the company is comprised of a grouping of people who communicate, who are genuinely concerned about the development of the employees, who are committed to the company, and who are laser focused on a specific set of outcomes that are established in a healthy context.

    3) Develop a workforce productivity improvement team:
    (My Response) I would love to work on a team like this. My skill is the ability to dissect the developmental needs of the individual while putting together a plan of action within the context of a sales organization. The main problem being addressed is the fact that many people are so overwhelmed that they can’t organize their thoughts and the resources well enough to purposefully and systematically establish the structures and processes needed to sustain the outcomes that they are pursuing. You need both. You need effort, but one also must build the structures needed to insure that they thrive in the midst of the goal once they attain it. This can be systematically reproduced in with the right person under the right set of circumstances.

    4) Develop a process for identifying and fixing bad managers:
    (My Response) This get’s sticky and I’m certain that it is full of quirky HR land mines. Nevertheless, with the right grouping of specialists working together, this can be tackled. The issue isn’t in identifying bad managers. The issue is identifying underachieving managers, where they are specifically falling short, and being effective at creating structures that will empower them to demonstrate quantifiable results.
    a) Political Snakepit – In the Sales and the Learning & Development arena, I don’t see things as a snake pit. I see a bunch of highly talented people who really heavily on best practices. I can’t argue with that because there is value in that. And yes, it is a consensus environment that is highly resilient to change. Nevertheless, a team of highly effective professionals can systematically break down the deep seated pessimism and fear that is the root cause to the resistance.
    Key Victories Needed:
    – Someone to engage the CEO who can help them to see the value add of a different approach and keep them vested for around 3 months. This will allow for consistent high visibility wins.
    – An effective means of dealing with two mindsets. One professional must be effective at dealing with the group think (consensus oriented) mindset and their individual set of needs and concerns. Another professional must be able to effectively empower those individuals who don’t want to adhere to the groupthink and who are capable of thriving within the context of being different while insuring that structures are put in place to empower them to attain results from a focused set of coached activities. The key is building an effective framework, monitoring & measuring it, and most important designing around the winning mindsets that support the best of both worlds (individual and group think mentalities). Both groupings have different developmental needs and they will perpetually be in conflict because they desire to utilize the same resources for similar reasons in a conflicting context. The context and the use of power to impose that context is the primary issue of contention.
    b) Dysfunctional System – Yes, there is a tremendous amount of dysfunction. Who’s going to deal with it? Well, you can’t put somebody in the shark tank who is afraid of rejection and you can’t put someone in their who can only see things from a surface perspective. You need someone with a broad skill set who can see ALL of the issues clearly and who can engage various stakeholders with a highly focused harmonious agenda that works for desirable cross functional outcomes. You need a specialist here because this is the most volatile piece of the puzzle. This is what I do (
    5) Convert talent management metrics into their dollar impacts – unfortunately, most traditional talent management metrics fail to impress executives because they are not expressed in the language of business
    (My Response) Keith raises a good point here. I’m not sure that I agree nor disagree. I need more information. Nevertheless, big wigs can easily be influenced because they see the pain and they experience the consequences, or at least they see others experience the consequences, every single day. They see the dollars going down the toilet so that is the easiest sale. You need a specialist here who understands the framework being implemented but who can also be able to immediately justify executive level reporting needs. This person has to be a perceived “player” so that the credibility is place needed to sustain a 3 month time commitment (the time it will take for a serious qualified person to quantitatively demonstrate a pattern of improvement). No room for failure here. The system better work :o)
    6) Develop a plan for handling a world of permanent VUCA (aka “SNAFU”) uncertainty:
    (My Response) I need more information Keith. Can you elaborate?
    7) Calculate the unintended consequences of talent-management cost cutting:
    (My Response) This is not an area of expertise for me. I would enjoy working with a specialist in this area.
    8) Adapt predictive metrics and trash the historical ones:
    (My Response) I can think of a few creative ways to utilize metrics in a way that is not labor intensive. Algorithms can be designed to do the heavy lifting and dashboards can be designed to deliver pertinent information in an easy to understand context. All in all, it depends on what you want to measure and how creative you are in measuring it.

    9) Conduct a talent competitive analysis:
    (My Response) Not my skill set. I would enjoy working with a specialist
    10) Use a CRM model to improve individual employee motivation and management
    (My Response) A CRM can be a powerful tool. I think that a little bit of creativity can go a long way here

  6. Great post Dr. John.

    I think #10 is attainable right now in a good talent management system.

    “Unfortunately, a similar CRM-type file does not exist for individual employees.”

    Good talent management systems allow exactly this behavior right now. All information and documentation is attached to an employee and follows them as they move. This can include all of the sorts of information you describe as tools to help managers.

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